Vintage Cable Box: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, 1982

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“Marriage, for me, is the death of hope.”

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A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, 1982 (Woody Allen), Orion Pictures

Born a little too late to appreciate Woody Allen’s early slapstick comedy, and then the easy transformation to the more thoughtful romantic comedy for which he would become synonymous, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy arrived on cable television at a time with which I would most identify: a middle period in his career that would introduce his new muse at the time – Mia Farrow. A brilliant but under-utilized actress in her own right, she would receive the lion’s share of attention for her work (and unfortunately, her personal life) with Allen. The movie was unfairly maligned as audience enthusiasm dipped after the autobiographical Stardust Memories (1980).

Allen plays a neurotic (of course) inventor, Andrew, married to the beautiful Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) whose cousin, college professor Leopold (José Ferrer) and his fiancée, Ariel (Farrow) are set to join them at their country home for the weekend. Among his startling inventions and flying machines, Andrew has created what he calls a “spirit ball” (a kind of magic lantern), which can communicate with ghosts. Andrew’s friend, Max (Tony Roberts) is also invited, and he brings his latest girlfriend, the youthful and sexually-active Dulcy (Julie Hagerty). Andrew’s sex life with his wife is waning. He keeps trying to initiate sex with her, but Adrian feels as though she might be frigid. Andrew discovers that Leopold’s fiancée was an old flame he never quite got over.

Andrew secretly covets Maxwell’s ease with women. He cries to him about his lack of sex drive. Maxwell recommends hypnosis. Leopold arrives with Ariel, and takes an immediate dislike to Maxwell, who starts to put the moves on Ariel. Adrian displays jealousy at the sight of her. When she confronts Andrew, he lies that he never loved her. Dulcy and Leopold develop a mutual attraction to each other, while Ariel and Andrew take baby-steps to rekindle their romance. Maxwell confesses his love for Ariel to Andrew. He wants Andrew to escort Ariel for a late-day rendezvous. Leopold tells Dulcy he is enamored of her and they arrange their own meeting time. Adrian seeks sexual advice from Dulcy, while Andrew consummates his desire for Ariel.

While Leopold is a worldly man of science who disbelieves notions of a spirit world, Ariel is earthy and bohemian, igniting the interest of both Maxwell and Andrew. Maxwell and Leopold nearly come to blows and Maxwell attempts suicide at the thought of their impending marriage. Before the weekend is over, Maxwell will be shot through the heart with an arrow intended for Andrew, and Leopold will die in the throes of passion and his spirit will take up residence in the woods. This contrived plot very much reminds me of Allen’s Manhattan (1979) wherein these dynamics (and soap-opera-style contrivances) are played against the backdrop of a perfect city, or a sumptuous wooded meadow, but lacking the epic qualities and instead embracing what Allen has referred to as “intermezzo.”

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This is an unusual period-piece (turn of the century) that, if anything else, demonstrates Allen’s skill at dialogue that needs no particular span of centuries in order to be worthwhile.  Images of sprites, spirits, and pixies are conjured by Allen’s characters in the midst of his typical sexual turmoil.  Gordon Willis’ photography is exceptional, and against the grain of his typically “darker” movies like The Godfather, Klute, and The Devil’s Own.  Lush fields and forestry, and gorgeous specimens of nature are given such a beautiful treatment that I was surprised he never received nominations for this work in this movie.  He would receive a much-deserved nomination a year later for Allen’s Zelig.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “To Be Or Not To Be, 1983”

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“Listen, if I don’t come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.  But if I do come back, you’re in a lot of trouble!”

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To Be Or Not To Be, 1983 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The story goes that Mel Brooks sought out the widow of Ernst Lubitsch to get her blessing with regard to a remake he wanted to produce for 1941’s Jack Benny classic, To Be Or Not To Be.  Lubitsch’s widow approved, and Brooks chose Alan Johnson (celebrated choreographer of many films including The Producers from 1968 and director of the notorious Brooksfilms flop, Solarbabies) to direct the film.  I can only assume Brooks decided not to direct because he wanted to focus on producing a faithful remake of a film with potentially controversial subject matter, and stay true to the dramatic material. In fact, this movie (and The Twelve Chairs) is as close to drama as Brooks would ever permit.

Brooks (with wife Anne Bancroft) play Frederick and Anna Bronski, reknowned actors (world famous in Poland!) and owners/operators of the Bronski Theater in Warsaw.  Despite warnings of imminent German incursion, Bronski reasons the show must go on; including a politically satirical musical number featuring a buffoonish Hitler (played by Bronski).  The Ministry of Information threatens to shut down his theater if he doesn’t remove the offending material.  Frustrated, he relents.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Bronski conducts a romantic affair with a brash, young Polish Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson) during Bronski’s center-piece, Highlights From Hamlet, in which he destroys Shakespeare with his hammy performances.

Soon after, the German war machine rolls into Poland.  Sobinski tells Anna he must leave immediately and connect with the Royal Air Force in England.  The Germans shut down Bronki’s theater, confiscate their possessions (including their home), implement gas rationing, and start rounding up dissidents and enemy agents.  The Bronskis reluctantly start hiding Jews in their basement.  Anna’s homosexual dresser, Sasha, opens his modest apartment to the Bronskis.  The brave Sobinski discovers that a respected member of the underground, Professor Selitski (José Ferrer), is a double-agent for the Germans.  Selitski acquires a list of Polish Underground members.  Sobinski is ordered by the British to paratroop back into Poland and kill Selitski.

Anna, in spite of her obvious infidelity, persuades her husband and his troupe of actors to help Sobinski.  First, Bronski must impersonate Colonel Erhardt in order to obtain the list from Selitski.  After Selitski is dispatched and the list is destroyed, Brooks masquerades as Selitski for the benefit of Colonel Erhardt (hilarious scene-stealing Charles Durning) and his bumbling assistant, Schultz (Christopher Lloyd).  Sobinski devises a plan to steal an aircraft and fly the Bronskis, the theater troupe, and all of the Jews (cleverly disguised as clowns) in hiding out of Warsaw to safety in England.

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This is such a fun film I have to admit I enjoyed it much more than the Jack Benny original that inspired it.  Film lovers in my age bracket respond more to Brooks than Benny.  Jack Benny, while a hilarious entertainer, was not in constant rotation on cable television in those days.  Even today (like Ernie Kovacs), it’s difficult to find a good portion of his surviving material.  When I was a kid, Mel Brooks was the king of comedy, and when To Be Or Not To Be debuted on cable, The Movie Channel ran a retrospective of his films.

What impresses me the most about To Be Or Not To Be (above the remake’s requisite respect for the original) is the very thin line the film negotiates between hilarity and pathos.  As an actor, this is Brooks’ strongest performance of all his movies.  In fact, all of the performances (particularly Bancroft) are on equal par.  These are a group of committed and energetic actors giving their all, and putting on a wonderful show.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.